It took 26 trees to transform Lindsay Smith from a screenwriter into an entrepreneur. One night in 2001, Smith noticed red Xs on ficus trees in her Gardena (Calif.) neighborhood. The next morning city workers were cutting those trees down because their roots were pushing through the sidewalk and causing it to buckle. Says Smith: "These were healthy, mature trees that were being destroyed." She persuaded Los Angeles County to give her 48 hours to find another solution.
In those two days she searched for sidewalk materials that might coexist with stately trees better than concrete. Her best lead came from Richard Valeriano, the senior public works inspector in Santa Monica. At his urging, U.S. Rubber Recycling Co. had made a prototype of sidewalk pavers from recycled tires. Smith got a hold of the prototype, showed it to county officials, and they left the remaining trees standing. U.S. Rubber wasn't interested in commercializing the prototype, but its CEO encouraged Smith to plow ahead. "I was raised in a house where inventing was a common thing," says Smith, adding that her grandfather came up with an insulated cup for Thermos.
Her own innovation was Rubbersidewalks Inc., a company that has installed footpaths made of recycled tires in 60 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Smith has also had requests from cities in Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The premolded, prefabricated rubber squares are cut to fit and installed over a layer of crushed granite, with interlocking dowels connecting the sections. Individual pavers can be unlocked and removed for repairs. In 2006, Smith's 12-person company had more than $1 million in revenues, and next year she plans to move some of her production to New York to cut costs for East Coast customers.
Smith began development of her product with a $250,000 matching grant from the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Thanks to her excellent credit rating, Smith was able to "match" that sum with her credit cards. "I am not encouraging people to use that model, but without it I wouldn't have been able to use the grant," she says. She set about improving the prototype, making the rubber look more like concrete and making it more durable. Her biggest challenge was in hardening the prototype, so pedestrians wouldn't have to change their stride if some parts of a sidewalk were concrete and some were rubber. In 2004, an angel investor saw Rubbersidewalks featured on a TV show and offered the company $100,000, effectively launching Rubbersidewalks' sales effort.
Many of Smith's customers face predicaments similar to that of Gordon Mann, the public works superintendent for Redwood City, Calif. His 2003 budget included $1 million just for pruning tree roots and repairing concrete walkways. The next year Mann started using Rubbersidewalks to replace sidewalks adjacent to trees. The rubber, he says, "looks similar to concrete and has been well accepted by the public."
While the Rubbersidewalks initially cost Mann's department about 50% more than concrete, they can save money in other ways. Mann says a typical root pruning in his city costs $150 to $300. And because the pavers can be installed closer to trees than concrete, Mann doesn't have to get easements, saving about $300 in legal fees per house. But his ultimate savings will depend on how long the Rubbersidewalks last. Says Mann: "If they only last five years, we may not have made the best choice." Smith says the pavers should last at least seven years.
She sees other benefits as well. The pavers reduce the number of lawsuits from people who trip or fall over broken concrete. They don't contribute to the so-called heat-island effect, which is the increase in urban air and surface temperatures caused by hot pavements, asphalt, and buildings. And, of course, they help save trees and reduce the amount of rubber in landfills.
For Smith, the move from screenwriting to entrepreneurship has been smoother than expected. At first, she says, "it was distressing because there was a conflict between being a creative person and being a businessperson. It was almost as if that was a betrayal." That feeling quickly passed. "Creating a product that didn't exist and persuading people that they need it is not so different from inspiring people through writing," Smith explains. Plus, there are 14 trees in Gardena--and countless more in other towns--that wouldn't exist if not for her.
By Stacy Perman